How Sparky Lyle launched the tradition of closer entrance music
April 19, 2018
Marty Appel wanted a rock song first. He was a rock and roll guy. But here's the thing: He couldn't think of a good one. This was eight years before "Hells Bells" came out, and almost 20 years before "Enter Sandman." He played in his mind the rock and roll
Marty Appel wanted a rock song first. He was a rock and roll guy. But here's the thing: He couldn't think of a good one. This was eight years before "Hells Bells" came out, and almost 20 years before "Enter Sandman." He played in his mind the rock and roll songs that were available to him -- none quite fit. None of those songs quite captured the majestic entrance of Sparky Lyle. The Yankees had nothing going in 1972. The team was blah and had been blah, more or less, for a half-dozen years. They were playing in a dilapidated Yankee Stadium that would have to be renovated (forcing the team to share Shea Stadium with the Mets for two seasons). The team was boring and the fans were bored. That was the only Yankees season when they failed to draw even a million people. There was nothing happening in pinstripes. Appel was a brand-new assistant publicist for the team, and he was dying for something to publicize; anything to get the fans going even a little bit. And he noticed: It was kind of fun when Sparky Lyle came into the game. Lyle had been a good but fairly nondescript relief pitcher for the Red Sox when Yankees general manager Lee McPhail decided to trade for him. McPhail sent first baseman Danny Cater to the Red Sox for Lyle, and immediately New York manager Ralph Houk announced, "Lyle's my lock-up man." And he was. In the fifth game of the season, Houk brought in Lyle to get the final out when Milwaukee had come within a run. That was the first of 141 saves he recorded with the Yankees.
In May, Houk brought Lyle into save situations nine times, and Lyle got the save every time. Lyle's emerging brilliance as a pitcher was fine, but what grabbed Appel was how theatrical his entrance was. A driver would pick him up from the bullpen in a pinstriped Datsun and drive him around to the Yankees' bullpen. Then he would get out of the car, toss away his warm-up jacket, spit tobacco juice, pound his glove and stomp his way to the mound. This was a big entrance, Appel thought. Here was Sparky Lyle arriving -- by automobile no less -- to save the moment, to save the day, a gunslinger coming to clean up the town, a pro wrestler coming to clear out the ring, a cavalryman coming to take the hill, a rock and roll band taking the stage. This, Appel decided, needed music. * * * It is widely known, and entirely without dispute, that the four greatest reliever entrance songs ever are (in no particular order): • "Enter Sandman" for Mariano Rivera (the great Billy Wagner also used Enter Sandman as his entrance song but sadly will be remembered as second-best much the way Tom Hanks will always be the second-best movie version of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee after Jason Robards).
• "Hells Bells" for new Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman. • "Welcome to the Jungle" for Eric Gagne. This is now the entrance song for the unhittable Craig Kimbrel, and it works. But hat tip to the original. • "Wild Thing" for Ricky Vaughn from "Major League."
There have been others who tried and came close to this stratosphere -- Washington's Sean Doolittle chose the supreme "For Whom the Bell Tolls," which was inspired, but he kind of moved away from it, going instead with other Metallica songs. I'd be all for him bringing it back, especially because in his first nine appearances this year with the Nationals he is averaging two strikeouts per inning. (Jonathan Papelbon went with this song during his time with the Phillies, but I suspect most people in Philadelphia would prefer to forget that time). Brian Wilson used to come in to House Of Pain's "Jump Around," which was perfect for him because Wilson was going for that whole San Francisco party atmosphere rather than the typical intimidating, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here," Dante Inferno closer vibe. Dennis Eckersley rather famously used "Bad to the Bone" for his entrance music. It's a good closer song, for sure (Goose Gossage also used it for a time), but I never thought it fit Eck. He was and is a free-spirit, Bay Area dude who kicked his leg high and threw strikes and became a Hall of Famer pretty much by accident. He was a goofball, is what I'm saying (in the most endearing way). While I get that "Bad to the Bone" is an ironic song, I don't know -- it never quite fit the Eck for me. John Smoltz was one of several relievers who have tried AC/DC's "Thunderstruck," which is a good but somewhat pedestrian choice. Do you really want to come in to AC/DC's second-best closer song? What fascinates me more is that for a time he entered to ABBA's "Dancing Queen," which is so ridiculous that it's inspired. You can dance
You can jive
Having the time of your life
Ooh see that girl
Watch that scene
Diggin' the dancing queen Try to get a hit off the pitcher with the guts to come in with that song. * * * Appel did not invent the closer entrance song -- organists had played music when relief pitchers came into games. The corniest of these: In 1963, the Twins purchased 28-year-old pitcher Bill Dailey, who had been kicking around baseball for a decade, mostly in the Minors. Dailey was a fatalist. He told friends this was his last shot and he was going to throw every pitch he could with everything he had until his arm blew out. Then he would work in construction. Well, he got off to a kind of rough start, but the Twins stuck with him in the bullpen. And something kicked in. For two months, from May 6 to July 7 -- he pitched 48 innings and allowed three runs, for an 0.56 ERA. The league hit .171 against him. Dailey was a bonafide phenom and Twins manager Sam Mele just kept putting Dailey into games when the Twins needed him. And when he entered the organist began playing -- it hurts even now to write this -- "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey." (To finish the story: Dailey had a fantastic 1963 season with six wins, 21 saves and a 1.99 ERA. He even got an MVP vote. But he was right about blowing out his arm; he pitched just 15 innings the next year, couldn't get anybody out and got that job in construction). Still, what Appel saw was an opportunity to make the closer music something more than just a quirky or funny aside. He approached Yankees organist Toby Wright and said that he wanted a special song for when Lyle came into games. The two did a little brainstorming. In those days, you probably know, there were no "closers." Instead, end-of-game relief pitchers were called "firemen"; you know, because they were supposed to put out fires. Appel and Wright tried to come up with a "fire" song. They immediately thought of The Doors' "Light My Fire." But it wasn't right. Lyle wasn't trying to light fires. Wright threw out "My Old Flame" as a possibility and also the old Ink Spots song "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire." But they both realized: There aren't many songs about extinguishing fires. Think about fire and rock and roll. Try to set the night on fire … let me stand next to you fire … the flames grow higher and it burns, burns, burns … cause when we kiss, ooh, fire … goodness, gracious great balls of fire. Appel and Wright decided go with something less literal. "We thought, 'You know what might work?'" Appel says now. "'Pomp and Circumstance.' You know, the graduation song." It made no sense at all. Why the graduation song for a reliever? But they tried it in an empty Yankee Stadium -- Wright played it on the organ -- and, you know what? It sounded good. (Legend has it that it was first played on April 19, 1972, which is 46 years ago today, but Appel remembers it being a little later in the season.) So they tried it the next time that Lyle came into the game. Appel spied the bullpen with binoculars. As soon as he realized that Lyle was coming into the game, he picked up the phone connected to Wright. "It's Sparky," he said. And Wright began playing the "Pomp and Circumstance" march as Lyle made his way to the mound. A sensation was born. * * * The game-changing part of "Pomp and Circumstance," I think, was the Appel decision to go away from something literal and just choosing music that sounds good. Above, I list the undeniable four best entry songs/closer combinations, but I did not put them in order. That was wrong -- there is a very clear No. 1 choice and that is "Hells Bells" and Hoffman. It is the best closer song. This is not up for debate.
"Hells Bells" obviously was not intended to signify the wrath of the relief pitcher about to enter the game. It's a tribute to Bon Scott, the original lead singer of AC/DC, who died of acute alcohol poisoning (or, perhaps, from a heroin overdose; it is disputed). The bell that rings at the start of the song rings for Scott, and the lyrics are meant to evoke Scott's wild and short life (and perhaps the hell he was raising in the afterlife). But the song's meaning is not the point. "Hells Bells" sounds perfect. When that first bell chimed, and everyone started going crazy because they knew Hoffman was coming into the game, oh man, goosebumps. A young Padres salesman named Chip Bowers came up with the song for Hoffman a quarter-century after Lyle first entered to "Pomp and Circumstance." He was feeding off the inspiration of Appel. Hoffman first entered to "Hells Bells" when he was attempting to tie Rod Beck's then-record of 41 consecutive saves. From the first bell, it was clear that this was magic. Trevor Hoffman saved 93 percent of his opportunities when "Hells Bells" played. If "Hells Bells" had been around in '72, Appel probably would have chosen it.
"I really did want an edgy song," Appel said. "I was part of the younger generation, I had a rock and roll mindset. We looked really hard for an appropriate rock and roll song, but we just couldn't find one." Well, that's OK because it's unlikely the Yankees would have let Appel play "Hells Bells" or anything edgy anyway. Baseball was square in '72, and the Yankees were the squarest. "Pomp and Circumstance" was about as avant-garde as they were likely to be. But it worked anyway -- because of the sound. Fans caught on so quickly that it even shocked Appel. After only a couple of times, the few fans began anticipating the moment; the first note of "Pomp and Circumstance" would play and the small crowd started going crazy. And the longer it went on, the crazier they went. "One thing that was different back then," Appel said, "is that they didn't always go to a commercial break when a reliever came in. They weren't sold out end-to-end like they are now. So a lot of times when Sparky came in, the people watching on television would hear 'Pomp and Circumstance' playing. You had people at home experiencing it. So when they came to the park, they automatically knew the drill." It was a hit. Soon after, the crosstown Mets started playing a goofy little Irish jig when Tug McGraw came into games (and then McGraw would thrill fans by stomping on the foul line as he came in because he didn't believe in superstitions). A wonderful baseball character named Al Hrabosky -- the Mad Hungarian -- invented an entire reliever act. He would turn his back to the plate, work himself to a frenzy, throw the ball hard into his glove and then quickly turn and glare down the batter. It was a pretty glorious routine, and as a prelude the team would play "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2," which was perfect for him. And it kept building and building until "Hells Bells" and "Enter Sandman" and relief pitcher music perfection. * * * Every closer has a song now. Kenley Jansen has been struggling lately -- weird to see -- especially since he still comes in to 2Pac's "California Love." Fans have grown used to games being over when that song begins. The Mets' Jeurys Familia comes into the upbeat "Danza Kuduro," which sort of suggests, "Hey, Familia's in the game, get the party started." Yankees closer Albertin Chapman now comes in to that threatening opening to Rage Against the Machine's "Wake Up." Like I said, everyone has one now. All of which leads to the final part of the Lyle story: He despised it. All of it. He didn't like the song, didn't like the expectation that came with it, didn't like any part of "Pomp and Circumstance." He pitched great. In '72, he finished third in the American League MVP vote, and, oddly, seventh in the AL Cy Young vote (voters have never known what to do with relief pitchers). Then in '73, he was an All-Star for the first time. He was beloved in the Bronx. "Pomp and Circumstance" was every Yankee fan's favorite song. But he apparently pleaded with management to stop playing that song. Then early in '74, Lyle began the year struggling. And he asked again: Stop playing that song. On April 24, 1974, a Royals-Yankees game, they stopped. "I asked the team management two years ago not to play the music," Lyle told reporters after the game. "They did it all next year and started again this year. … I just thought it was stupid and I finally got them to cut it out. What if I got the hell hit out of me? What would they play, 'The Old Rugged Cross?'" It was strange -- Lyle was a free spirit, a practical joker, he did not seem the type to get freaked out by the song. "He said, 'I'm already put in enough pressure situations, I don't need this huge weight on my shoulders,'" Appel says. "I was surprised, really. Sparky was flamboyant. He didn't worry about pressure." As far as Appel remembers, they never did play "Pomp and Circumstance" for Lyle after that. But here's the funny part: For many years, at least once or twice a season, a reporter would write, "And Sparky Lyle came out of the bullpen to the sounds of "Pomp and Circumstance." The song had become so much a part of his persona that people heard it even when it wasn't there.